|Disasters Preparedness and Mitigation - Issue No. 56 - October, 1993 (Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) / Organización Panamericana de la Salud (OPS), 1993, 8 p.)|
For more than a decade. PAHO has motivated the countries of this region to formally establish a health sector disaster management program, and to ensure that this program is institutionalized. or strongly rooted within the sector so that its existence is sure to survive the many changes that occur at governmental levels.
To a large degree this effort has been successful. and the considerable progress achieved in prevention and preparedness in the health sector must be credited to the professionals in charge of those programs.
But what, precisely. is the role of the unit or division in the health sector that has been designated responsible for disaster management? Its role and function has evolved in line with modern concepts of disaster management. The scope of its responsibility is quite broad:
· It is accountable for the entire health sector not only for activities of the Ministry of Health.
· It covers the entire disaster cycle: from prevention and mitigation of damages in health facilities to preparing and carrying out the health response in the case of a disaster.
· Its responsibility is not limited to any one type of disaster: it is a multihazard, institutional mechanism for natural disasters, chemical and radiological accidents, explosions, fires, and armed conflict.
The functions of the program are complex and can be classified into distinct categories:
· Technical/scientific. This entails developing norms and guidelines for training personnel and preparing and testing plans. Of course, specialized expertise in areas such as water supply or toxicology will come from other program divisions.
· Promotional. This requires promoting the management of the health aspects of disasters, not only within the health sector but also within the civil defense system, at the political level, and for the mass media and general public.
· Liaison/coordination. Coordination is necessary before and during emergencies with the civil defense, UN Disaster Management teams, international agencies, and other sectors.
· Operational. Ensuring that health assistance arrives promptly to the victims is only the tip of the iceberg it is the most visible but is not the most timeconsuming aspect of operations.
Given the complexity and diversity of these functions, where, within the health organization can a rather small unit which combines highly technical and political roles be placed? Should it exist within another technical division? And if so, which one? Should it be attached to the office of international coordination, or fall directly under the cabinet? How can such a unit be given direct access to political decision makers and still maintain its technical character?
Most agencies and ministries recognize that disaster preparedness is not the terrain of any one technical division or discipline. It crosses many disciplinary boundariesfrom medical care to water treatment, and from epidemiology to architecture. And those programs at the national level which have been granted special status and access to the political levels have been the most effective in meeting all of their responsibilities.
The responsibility of the health sector's disaster
management program requires a multihazard